While we’re waiting to hear the latest news from the legislature about transportation funding, I’d like to introduce our readers to a writer I’ve been following for the past year.
Charles Marohn is Executive Director and co-founder of Strong Towns, whose mission is: “The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.”
For the best introduction to the ideas behind Strong Towns, I suggest Mr. Marohn’s article The Growth Ponzi Scheme. That article is a summary of a longer series of posts and I highly recommend the entire series:
- The Mechanisms of Growth – Trading near-term cash for long-term obligations.
- Case studies that show how our places do not create, but destroy, our wealth.
- The Ponzi scheme revealed – How new development is used to pay for old development.
- How we’ve sustained the unsustainable by going “all in” on the suburban pattern of development.
- Responses that are rational and responses that are irrational.
How do these ideas relate to our current ferry funding crisis? Not to oversimplify things too much, but our current situation boils down to three things:
- A reliance on long-term debt for infrastructure funding.
- A reliance on growth projections as to the amount of money available to finance that debt.
- Funding new construction but not providing for maintenance & replacement of existing infrastructure.
As we are seeing all too clearly now, our projections about how much debt we could incur, and our ability to finance that debt, have been wildly exaggerated. Transportation bonds are completely tapped out, yet we will be paying debt service on them for decades. The mechanism designed to pay that debt service (primarily gas tax revenues) are far short of what had been projected when the bonds were issued — and falling. We not only do not have enough money to build planned new transportation projects, we do not have enough money to maintain what infrastructure we already have.
The specter of severe service disruptions for ferry-dependent communities is frightening to imagine. Yet I believe we must start to consider what our communities can do to adapt to service reductions and, possibly, the failure of the State to update our aging fleet in a timely manner. Marohn talks about creating resilient communities, and offers these Placemaking Principles for Strong Towns. Many of these principles are based on the idea that resilient communities can create economic value by using our resources more wisely. In a time where we seem to be less and less certain of our ability to finance growth through debt, and the loss of Federal and State money for local communities, I think it is well worth our time to consider working together to create our own Strong Towns.
- WA DOT Finance page
- WA DOT Sources and Uses of Funds for 2007-2009 budget; for a look at funding mechanisms and previous revenue projections.